Timothy Woodruff house on Stewart Avenue, ca.1908. Village of Garden City, NY, Archives Collection
If you close your eyes and picture Long Island’s suburbia, the neatly manufactured streets of Levittown often spring to mind – the manicured lawns, freshly smoothed sidewalks, and neat little cape homes flanking the broad, gently curved streets. For many, this was their Long Island – created during the post World War II era of optimism, and has become the narrative that Long Island, comprised of Nassau and Suffolk Counties, countless villages and unincorporated hamlets that are home to 2.8 million people, has most been anchored to.
What is often overlooked is the fact that Long Island was settled long before Levittown – in fact, areas of European settlement on the Island are so old they predate the United States of America by a century or more. From the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century, Long Island witnessed growth that modeled itself after the preplanned garden cities of Europe. The book Gardens of Eden: Long Island’s Early Twentieth Century Planned Communities, a collection of essays edited by Robert MacKay for W.W. Norton & Company, explores some of the more unique areas in the region.
Over the decades, these areas, especially in Nassau County, were sought-after by ambitious developers for not only their exclusivity, but proximity to New York City as well. Developers also sought the rural isolation of Suffolk County, which had less than 100,000 people in 1910.
When one examines the areas explored in the book, certain themes arise. The ambitions of man to shape the natural environment, the desire to blend the benefits of both urban and country living, as well as the importance of the old doctrine of real estate – location, location, location.
Using Gardens of Eden as a guide, the following five communities are unique stops along the region’s rich and varied history, helping to shape the Long Island its residents know today.
The E. Belcher Hyde Atlas of Nassau County, 1914, shows the new 450-acre Great Neck Estates between Little Neck Bay and Middle Neck Road. Courtesy Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities
At the time, Harvey Stewart McKnight’s grand 450-acre vision for Great Neck was the largest real estate project to be undertaken on Long Island. Stretching from Little Neck Bay to Middle Neck Road, one of the main arterial routes for the peninsula, the development caught the imagination of buyers and helped launch the first, if not short-lived, real estate boom in Nassau County. The project included an open competition in 1909 to solicit the most creative landscape designs, awarding a young planner $1,000 for his effort modeled after English Country Estates of old. Between Harvey’s ambitions and the collective backing of his five brothers who formed the McKnight Realty Company, Great Neck Estates eventually grew into what was called by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle a ” center of wealth and social influence.”
The project was massive in scope – lots ranged in size from 20 x 100 to 110 x 100, included 26-miles of winding country lanes, and was designed so each house had a great view, including many with waterfront vistas.
This handsome, two-and-a-half- story gambrel-roofed Dutch Colonial was photographed with its trim yard and spindly young trees in 1913. It is now the site of the Village of Great Neck Estates village hall. Courtesy Village of Great Neck Estates
More than just a homebuilder with prime developable land, McKnight was a visionary who saw the potential benefits of expanding the area’s commuter infrastructure. An active proponent of the LIRR’s East River Tunnels and electrification of the LIRR’s Port Washington Branch, McKnight knew that all of Nassau County would benefit from increased and speedier accessibility to New York City.
A shrewd political operative, McKnight knew the importance of home rule. To protect both the character and future of his development (and to prevent annexation into New York City, which McKnight feared was next for Nassau County), McKnight advocated for residents to incorporate as a village – on April 16, 1911, the Village of Great Neck Estates was born. By 1922, there were 150 houses in the village. Today, roughly 2,700 call the area home, and continue to build and thrive in the area.